Integrating virtual patients into courses: follow-up seminars and perceived benefit

Samuel Edelbring, Olle Broström, Peter Henriksson, Daphne Vassiliou, Jonas Spaak, Lars Owe Dahlgren, Uno Fors, Nabil Zary
Medical Education 2012, 46 (4): 417-25

CONTEXT:   The use of virtual patients (VPs) suggests promising effects on student learning. However, currently empirical data on how best to use VPs in practice are scarce. More knowledge is needed regarding aspects of integrating VPs into a course, of which student acceptance is one key issue. Several authors call for looking beyond technology to see VPs in relation to the course context. The follow-up seminar is proposed as an important aspect of integration that warrants investigation.

METHODS:   A cross-sectional explanatory study was performed in a clinical clerkship introduction course at four teaching hospitals affiliated to the same medical faculty. The VP-related activities were planned collaboratively by teachers from all four settings. However, each setting employed a different strategy to follow up the activity in the course. Sixteen questionnaire items were grouped into three scales pertaining to: perceived benefit of VPs; wish for more guidance on using VPs, and wish for assessment and feedback on VPs. Scale scores were compared across the four settings, which were ranked according to the level of intensity of students' processing of cases during VP follow-up activities.

RESULTS:   The perceived benefit of VPs and their usage were higher in the two intense-use settings compared with the moderate- and low-intensity settings. The wish for more guidance was high in the low- and one of the high-intensity settings. Students in all settings displayed little interest in more assessment and feedback regarding VPs.

CONCLUSIONS:   High case processing intensity was related to positive perceptions of the benefit of VPs. However, the low interest in more assessment and feedback on the use of VPs indicates the need to clearly communicate the added value of the follow-up seminar. The findings suggest that a more intense follow-up pays off in terms of the benefit perceived by students. This study illustrates the need to consider VPs from the perspective of a holistic course design and not as isolated add-ons.

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